During the past half-century a French-speaking Louisiana native named Olex David has cured at least 6,000 victims of ringworm, warts, toothaches, hemorrhaging, sprained limbs and even snakebite. Not one of his patients has thanked the 73-year-old Olex, and for good reason. “If a person, he say ‘thank you,’ then it must all be done again,” explains David who also refuses payment. “It is a gift from the almighty God and only He can be thanked.”
David (he pronounces it dah-veed) is a Cajun healer or traiteur (from the French for “to treat”) and he worships his almighty God as a Roman Catholic. But the traiteur’s craft is an amalgam of prayer, near-hypnotic suggestion and a strong wish to believe—and a respected folk practice in David’s cane and cotton backcountry 200 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans.
“I knew this old colored man—oh, 80 or 90 years old—and he had the power,” says David in a slow-paced, Cajun-accented voice. “I say to him, ‘Old Man, can you teach me?’ He say he had one more to teach.” During his lifetime, a traiteur may share his secret with no more than three disciples or he will forfeit all his powers. The aged black man told David how to cure warts with a secret prayer. “Ringworm, snakebite and the bleeding, I learn from other people.” (College-educated young Cajuns think the healing practice originated with voodoo introduced by slaves from Haiti.)
David’s wife Ezola, 68, has ancestors who were traiteurs too, but who healed with Indian cures. She says that her mother, Agnes Sicard—a woman in her 90s who lives with the Davids—is due for a third and final treatment for scalp warts. David mumbles a secret incantation and kneads the warts with his thumbs “to pass them away.” He reminds his mother-in-law that she must believe. Dutifully the mother-in-law agrees she is cured—even though warts still dot her scalp. A more effective testimonial was offered by the French consul-general’s secretary in New Orleans, whose brother was cured of a skin infection. “It went away,” explained the secretary, “at almost precisely the moment Mr. David said it would.”
David himself boasts about being summoned to a Baton Rouge hospital by the doctor of a patient whose hemorrhaging appeared fatal. David performed his ministrations and said that the bleeding would stop. “Everyone laughs.” But the next day “the doctor is laughing because the patient stopped bleeding, and he tell the nurses, ‘You don’t believe what you see, and I don’t know how he do it, but it is possible. It’s been done.’ ”
A spokesman for the archdiocese of New Orleans says guardedly: “The scripture is filled with healing worked by prayer, and if one has faith and humility there is nothing wrong with praying for something good.”
Although David worked most of his life as a carpenter, he is now a fulltime traiteur, and his practice often includes snakebitten farm animals. Each day he leaves the pink-painted house he built himself and makes his rounds on foot.
Olex David has shared the secret of his healing craft with two of the three initiates tradition allows. Both of them are now dead. He still has one more heir to pick.